It was very warm sitting in the queue, more than warm in fact. An old car with marginal ventilation is not a good place to be in a heat wave, less so when you are stationary and there isn’t a breath of airflow. At least – this time – I wasn’t wearing three layers of Nomex and a crash helmet.
I don’t often spectate at race meetings but I make an exception for the Donington Historic as ongoing financial inconvenience means that taking an active part is not an option. Now in its eighth year the annual meeting attracts hundreds of teams and cars with static club displays on the infield to complement the track action. Although it may not be immediately apparent to the casual visitor, Donington is a particularly historic venue. Originally developed in the early 1930s using the road layout within the Donington Hall Estate, the first Grand Prix was held in 1935 and the circuit soon played host to epic battles with Mercedes and Auto Union stamping their 170mph dominance on the local contenders. It’s fair to say the track has had a chequered history including a period of dormancy that lasted almost 40 years. Against all odds the venue re-opened in 1977 and Grand Prix cars even returned briefly in 1993, but a disastrous lease deal once again resulted in suspension of racing in 2009, this time not least due to an open trench severing the circuit in two while the operators filed for bankruptcy. Happier times seem to have now resumed under Motorsport Vision and you can see where the money has gone. Facilities are gradually being improved for competitors and spectators alike and it’s a great venue for an international historic meeting.
It isn’t a cheap day out even as a spectator, but if you attend under the guise of a car club you can qualify for a discount and bring your car into the infield parking areas. Note that there is no requirement for the cars to be classics in any sense so if you expect wall to wall historics here you’ll be disappointed. Nice as they can occasionally be, there are only so many late model Mustangs or Porsches I can look at – but don’t worry, we’ve picked out some of the gems for you. There’s better news on track though with plenty of variety, and qualifying takes place on the Friday with nineteen races scheduled across the Saturday and Sunday. We visited on Saturday with racing running from 9am to nearly 7pm, save for a one hour lunch break when the car clubs have the option to circulate the track at rather lower speeds. Dare I whisper it but spectating at roundy-roundy can be a little monotonous however with races up to one hour in duration it’s easy to nip into the paddock for a look around and still see portions of everything. Right then, with the sun already at Saharan intensity, on with the hat and let’s find some cars to gawp at.
Picking out the interesting stuff in the car club area first, you don’t see Mercedes 108 coupes very often but here we found an almost matching pair, my favourite being the slightly darker of the two in 3.5 litre 280SE trim. They were both in immaculate order and fine examples of stacked headlamp style. The inboard driving lamps and imposing grille give a real sense of purpose and the whole car blends solidity and elegance like little else. I may have lingered for a while here.
Elegance was in short supply in the neighbouring field of Mustangs, and I do mean a field as there must have been around 100 of various types. Mustangs aren’t about elegance but they should be about show and a useful potted history of evolution could be found with a trio of bright yellow coupes. I’m not sure about the 1966 Fastback but the Mach 1 looked very comfortable in its startling hue. There were too many latest generation Mustangs for our purposes, but I’m glad that Ford took the plunge with right hand drive and I’ll wait for depreciation to do its welcome work. The unexpected by-product of all this yellow was to make purple metallic and a vinyl roof look quite restrained, now that is proper cool confidence.
Also brightly coloured was the orange Fiat Mirafiori Sport. After lusting over the RSD 131 Abarth rally car a few weeks ago it was an unexpected bonus to find its road car sister here. The late 70s were a golden period for sports saloons and this is surely one of the best. With no owner in attendance I couldn’t enquire further, but it appeared to be an Irish import if the original dealer stickers are to be believed. There certainly aren’t many in the UK however.
Next up, a chance to play spot the difference with an Autotune Aristocat parked next to a lovely Jaguar XK150. If you do manage to spot the difference don’t bother to write in, because you win nothing, which is coincidently precisely what I would rather possess than own an Aristocat. I don’t want to be judgemental, but I could draw a more convincing XK150 after nine pints of screenwash and a lengthy period of sleep deprivation. To think that an XJ6 gave up its life for that. I’d love to buy one to break as a donor for XJ6 parts thereby putting a small part of the world to rights. I’m not against all kit cars, just those where every single dimension is slightly but vitally incorrect. The thought that it must have been premeditated is actually disturbing. I’d make a reasonable bet as to who parked up first, as I doubt they arrived together…
A palete cleanser now with my favourite Aston Martin in the entire world. I don’t mean a DB5, I mean this DB5. It’s been rolling up to Donington for a few years now and it’s perfect because it’s the antithesis of the “investor” car. It’s got dents, filler and occasional holes in unimportant areas of the bodywork. The interior shows every mile and every year. The paintwork, where it isn’t cracked, looks like it’s been applied with a water pistol. There’s a bit of tape slapped on below the driver’s door and to top it all the number plates are mismatched with yellow on the rear and black/silver at the front. It’s a lovely old thing and it would be tragic if it got restored and painted 007 silver like all the rest of them. Under normal circumstances, citing a DB5 as the star of the show would be a bit Sunday Times Magazine, but I make no apologies for this one because I adore the fact that certain elements must be criminally appalled at the state of it. Whoever owns this car is a proper hero.
Time to look at some racing cars. The paddock is open and there are no restrictions when wandering around, with the pitlane also opening at lunchtime. Part of the ease of movement was down to a noticeable lack of spectators. I can’t say whether more paying punters turned up on the Sunday but comparing Saturday 2018 to Saturday 2017, the difference was noticeable. We’d noticed this in the car club parking area too as many pitches were empty, but the reasons aren’t clear as admission charges have only modestly increased and the programme was as packed as ever. However, also noticeable was the reduced number of trade stands selling the usual artwork, clothing and automobilia. There was definitely less of a buzz around the paddock, the only benefit being that photography was easier and there were no queues for facilities. Let’s hope Sunday was a busier day and it’s only a temporary blip.
First inside the paddock was actually Porsche Centre Leeds with a selection of used road cars including a couple of 356s and a 911 Carrera 2.7RS. This particular RS is one of only 11 produced in Aubergine and was owned until recently by musician and petrolhead, Jay Kay. Now with 72,000 miles on the clock, it’s been given a refresh and is ready to go again. Yours for only £555,000, though presumably you could negotiate down to maybe £554,000 or thereabouts for cash.
Variety is the order of the day amongst the competition cars but reviewing my photos it’s clear that my interest lies more with the tin tops than single seaters. Starting from the 50s and 60s cars, there are always a good number of Austin A35s on grid lately following the establishment of a single make championship. They were mixing it with other makes here though, not only giving the Austin A40s a run for their money but the bigger cars too. One unusual entry was the Jowett Javelin from the Oxford Universities Motorsport Foundation camp, also campaigning a Riley 1.5 and fostering a love of classics in the engineers of the future. The low light Minor was another rarity, and double so in race trim.
The one hour Tony Dron Trophy Historic Touring Car Challenge supplied my favourite grid of the day. BMW E30 M3s took top places but third on the podium was the fantastic Bastos Rover Vitesse of Chris Ward and Steve Soper. Fourth overall was Eric Mestdagh solo driving car 75, the BMW CSL in full Batmobile trim. Every year I come away with more photos of that car than any other, and the distinctively savage mechanical sound of the straight six still cuts through the rest of the blaringly loud grid. If nothing else, you have to love a car undertaking a race on the brightest of spring days whilst still having covered spotlamps fitted.
Quite a long way further down the field of 21 finishers were the Bastos Volvo 242 Turbo and a hard-driven BMW 1600Ti, proving the variety on the entry list. We can’t ignore the spectacular Jaguar XJ12C Broadspeed either which resembles a cartoon of itself with the huge wings and arches. Amongst the 13 non-finishers was a smart little Ford Fiesta in Datapost livery returning to the paddock on a tow rope, the Brut 33 sponsored Capri, and the Mayfair Magazine stickered Dolomite. Fastest lap was claimed by a Sierra Cosworth RS500 at a staggering 94 mph average, but that too was a non-finisher. The key learning from these races is that cigarette advertising is cool and makes your car go faster, but period aftershave is also a good alternative and at least you’ll smell nice for the marshals. I’m not sure what the benefit of bearing the name of a specialist gentleman’s publication is… it passes the time whilst waiting for the tow truck I suppose…
Getting close up in the paddock offers an excellent chance to look at the cars and talk to the teams, turning up some real gems. Hiding behind an awning was the only remaining genuine Eggenberger Group A BMW 528i, immaculate and retaining its original shell. The same team, Geoff Steel Racing, have two Group A BMW 635 CSIs one of which is available on an arrive and drive hire basis. I didn’t enquire how much, obviously.
Finally, it’s not all racing cars at Donington as historic rally cars can be found running display laps on the Melbourne loop. It’s not a natural rally venue but the top hairpin provides a chance to showboat for those expert and not so expert drift merchants. I was particularly drawn to the Manta 400 in works Opel colours, the owner having purchased it at the right price after a destructive roll and brought it back to prime condition. Rally cars are made to be used however so he wasn’t too concerned to be buffing the tyre marks off the rear quarter after a moment of over exuberance and he certainly worked hard entertaining the crowd. Also catching my attention was the ex-Miki Biasion Sierra Sapphire Cosworth, resplendent in Autoglass and Mobil 1 colours. Nostalgia makes me fond of the early 90s crop of rally cars and I used Sierras in competition myself for a while. However, mine were more 2.0 Ghia than 2.0 Cosworth… not really the same thing at all!
As nice as it was to not have to jostle through crowds, the Donington Historic deserved a better turn out and I would recommend a visit if you haven’t been before. The fact that I’ve not even mentioned the Mercedes Gullwing casually abandoned in the paddock sums it up. It’s so full of fantastic cars you hardly know where to look next.